It’s always tempting to focus on that which is inherently original about the present. Modern social media, first pioneered by young entrepreneurs and populated by college students, certainly represents something new in the human experience. But while it’s easy to go on about how social media is changing the world, sometimes it can be interesting to think about how platforms like Facebook and Twitter represent the return of our earlier history in a new form.
For example, take a look at this community column published in the Clare Sentinel, a small newspaper published in Clare County, Michigan in the 1890s. The April 18th, 1894 edition’s “Brevities” read like an eloquently rewritten Facebook newsfeed:
Whitney & Bachelor broke camp yesterday.
J. Schilling was at Lake Station yesterday.
L. Saperston of Coleman was in the city today.
Miss Mary Harvey of Calkinsville is in the city.
Mrs. Will Cole has been quite sick at the home of her father, Jos. Adams on Maple street.
Chas. Lee’s barber shop has been increased by the addition of another chair, John Davis of Meredith being the new man.
A.D. Potter and wife of McBain are now at the home of her father, A.W. McIntyre. Mr. Potter returned yesterday from Montana where he went last spring.
There are even advertisements for shoes to the right of the check-ins and status updates. Looks familiar, right?
America itself was built in no small part thanks to the social media of its day: mass produced political pamphlets. The Economist put it well in a story from 2011:
In January 1776 Thomas Paine’s pamphlet “Common Sense”, which rallied the colonists against the British crown, was printed in a run of 1,000 copies. One of them reached George Washington, who was so impressed that he made American officers read extracts of Paine’s work to their men. By July 1776 around 250,000 people had been exposed to Paine’s ideas. Newspapers at the time had small, local circulations and were a mix of opinionated editorials, contributions from readers and items from other papers; there were no dedicated reporters. All these early media conveyed news, gossip, opinion and ideas within particular social circles or communities, with little distinction between producers and consumers of information. They were social media.
Talk about going viral. But if today’s social media represents anything truly unique in the human experience, it’s less in the way we relay the otherwise mundane details and signature events of our lives, and more in the reach and convenience with which we can do so thanks to new technology. Even Thomas Paine needed a printing press and someone to set the type and deliver the final product, although he sold more pamphlets than he has likes today.
Modern social media has freed ordinary people of even those basic limitations, and given all of us the opportunity to do all of it ourselves. In that sense, though perhaps only in that sense, it is truly revolutionary.
Technology made possible the centralized distribution of information on a national and then an international basis, and now technology has brought us back to where we began – decentralized communication between more or less ordinary people through what amounts to word of mouth. Meanwhile, the gatekeepers of the traditional mass media are more centralized than ever before. The wheel keeps turning, but the cycle is never quite the same twice.